The Peculiar Power of Jewish Food Influencers

The following is a transcript of Episode 98 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, and welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Tuesday, April 26th, 2022. 

I’m fascinated by food culture on social media, as an observer, a consumer, and sometimes even as a producer. I like watching conventional food TV as well as weird food videos. And I’ve also been known to run unwieldy social media threads about food and cooking, sometimes taking pictures of what I’m cooking or eating, and then just waiting for the invariably dozens of comments that will ensue. I could, I don’t know, run a marathon, have a new baby, write a book, and probably generate less enthusiasm on Facebook than a running thread on what people are making for Shabbat dinner. 

I think this is amazing and funny and stay tuned, maybe one day I’ll really fulfill my life dream and quit this Jewish-ideas rat-race to host a cooking show. Still, I’m not really sure what food media is really all about. Maybe part of it is this weird new phenomenon that was first described only about 15 years ago on message boards online.

And now is being discussed wearily by actual neurologists, an acronym called ASMR, autonomous sensory Meridian response, the positive euphoric feeling that people get in watching or listening to certain types of behavior, including the preparing and eating of food. ASMR is a common hashtag now on social media, a reminder that maybe you don’t actually care that much about whether Jamie Geller, the food personality who’s video opened our show, whether she actually likes knafeh or rugelach better, but there’s something we like about watching her decide. 

Beyond any specific explanation, all of us are now just generating a whole new intimacy with one another, friends and strangers, through social media, by being in each other’s lives through these media, whether in curated ways that allow us to stylize what we look like, what our food looks like or periodically, even in real ways, seeing into each other’s homes, minds, feelings, and stomachs. 

In general, I think that for better or worse, all of us central social media are engaged in a big science experiment in trying to understand human behavior and the human condition. But we’re not really the scientists. We’ve just volunteered ourselves as the subjects. Still, I think we’re learning a lot about different kinds of people and we’re all being influenced, it’s a keyword for today, to be a little bit different based on what this media gives us access to. 

A few years ago, my friend and today’s guest on the show, Dr. Shayna Weiss at Brandeis university tweeted something that made me laugh. I scrolled through Shayna’s Twitter last night, once again, to find it. It was a screenshot of a video online of a religious Jewish woman food quote influencer who was cooking schnitzel in a disposable aluminum fan pan on a gas flame on a stovetop and listeners, if you get nothing else from this episode, I urge you please to not do that.

I didn’t learn cooking techniques from the video, but it did send me down the rabbit hole that is today’s show: the growing world of frum Jews, mostly women, who are building brands and businesses as kosher food influencers, primarily on Instagram, but also on YouTube and other social media channels. It may seem niche, but I think this is a story that opens a lot of windows for us about how social media is shaping the performance of Jewish identity in public, about how wealth and consumption are evolving as characteristics of American Jewish religiosity about the lines that religious Jews draw between lives guided by normativity in law and laws that are increasingly omnivorous in all sorts of other ways.

And yes, also about food and the ways that food is evolving as a characteristic of American Jewish religiosity. So, I invited Shayna back onto our show, I think for the third or maybe the fourth time. We’ve talked in the past about Jewish and Israeli music. We talked once about Israeli TV. Thanks for being here again. 

Shayna is a scholar of Jewish culture, I think meticulous in resisting the divide between quote-unquote high and low culture. What we’re talking about today in terms of food and social media is a major phenomenon that needs analysis. It’s also big business. So Shayna, uh, welcome back, and, and first of all, tell me what, what, why is this fascinating and why has this grown as big business? Particularly I think in the frum community, although we’ll get to the distinction between, I think, kosher influencers and Jewish food influencers later on. 

What do you think is behind the, the kind of explosion of this phenomenon? 

Shayna: First of all, thank you, Yehuda, so much. I’m honored to be a repeat guest here on Identity Crisis. You know, I’ll start with a wider context. Of course, you know, these influencers or this market is not unique, right? There are food influencers of every niche, of every variety, multiple platforms, Instagram, increasingly Ti Tok, and others. So that’s an important thing to think of. 

I think for people who keep kosher, which is not necessarily the same as Jewish food influencers, right? You already have inherently a niche market. And of course, if you keep a kosher home and if you are to some extent, Sabbath observant. There is a lot of what a friend called recently project management.

Right. You have, you know, you’re preparing weekly Sabbath dinners. You’re kashering the house for Pesach. You’re preparing for the chagim, right. You’re separating between meat and milk. Right. You’re buying things. You’re searching things. You’re consuming, at least in the vast majority of markets in America, in a different way.

And there are all sorts of helpful tips, right? Especially if you live outside of the New York area. So social media is amazing for niche markets. Right. You know, you might not ever see a, you know, a kosher cooking food show on, I don’t know, the Food Network or whatever, but with a couple of hashtags, followers, et cetera, you can connect to hundreds of thousands of people who keep kosher in a way that you never could on a television channel. So it’s made for these niche markets and then, for Orthodox women, especially, who generally speaking are doing the vast majority of domestic labor in their homes, as are women in general in America, but especially Orthodox women.

They don’t necessarily have outlets in other kinds of media. It is very hard to get published as an Orthodox woman inside Orthodox media. There are some exceptions and with very few exceptions, really, I can only think of one in print media, there are no Orthodox publications that will print pictures of women. Maybe two, there are very few. 

So Instagram is a place where Orthodox women can really show themselves without this, you know, censorship or mediation, and a way where they can show off what they’ve been doing and be valued for what they’ve been doing. Right. As well as tapping into larger ideals of femininity, domesticity, house making, et cetera.

I think there’s a lot of similarities with Mormon women, who are sometimes derisively called mommy bloggers, in terms of sort of niche religious content that often has a lot of appeal beyond its immediate circle. There’s a lot to say, but I’ll stop there.

Yehuda: Yeah. That’s so, you opened so many doors that I want to get into. Niche content is important, Jewish versus frum, but I just want to pick up on that piece where you’re basically saying that for a lot of influencers themselves, there’s a beans of being unmediated and that there’s something as a result that is weirdly both rebellious and obedient about so many aspects of this media. By, by being unmediated, it means, well, I can’t get my picture into the magazine, but I can just speak to a general public who can see my face and can see what I’m doing and see how I’m dressed.

So there’s something that you’re moving, like, for these women, it’s kind of moving out of the normative and ordered systems of how they are seen. On the other hand, a lot of the performance that exists in the videos or in pictures, is, it’s not like, it’s not anti-normative. Oftentimes actually there are aspects of it where people are not just telling you how to make a potato kugel.

They also want to talk about their own faith. They want to talk about keeping Shabbat in their home. So it’s a little bit of both, right? It is a perpetuation of a frum lifestyle in public and the portrayal of it. And it’s doing so in ways that are kind of inconsistent with how the Orthodox media world wants to present women. 

Shayna: Totally. And of course, like no one can operate outside of the larger network that they’re in or frameworks that they’re in. So, you know, women that post on Instagram, Jewish, religious, not have to think about how they look, right. Often more so than men. Especially Jewish women and especially Orthodox Jewish women, who are often judged so much on appearance.

Right. What kind of sheitel are you wearing, if you’re wearing one? Short sleeves, long sleeves, do you cover your hair? Do you not? Right. These are all questions that come up and become hyper-visible when you’re on a social media platform. And additionally, sometimes scholars will talk about a sort of raising the bar from the social media comparisons.

So for example, potato kugel on Friday night, right? If we think of traditional shabbos food, right? At least Ashkenazi, right? Chicken soup, potato kugel, et cetera. You now, may be watching an influencer who prepares some sort of crazy fusion cuisine, or a quote-unquote, healthy kugel or whatnot, and all of a sudden you feel stressed, not just to make shabbos dinner, but to make shabbos dinner in line with the, you know, most recent foodie trends.

So it can definitely operate in multiple directions. And I, like any, I think, interesting piece of popular culture, it both challenges social norms, and also reifies them at the same time. Um, and it’s often hard to pick out exactly what is going on. 

Yehuda: Great. So just to back up for one second, one of the interesting aspects of what we’re talking about today is there is, on one hand, a much larger market for what we might call Jewish food influencers, you know, Adeena Sussman, for instance, publishes a really well-regarded mass-market cookbook called Sababa.

She had been working with Chrissy Teigen as her cookbook partner. And so she moves out on her own. Molly Yeh is probably the most famous example of like a Food Network star who is also Jewish and who integrates Jewish food into what she’s doing, but it’s not presenting as kind of, frum.

There’s something else happening here. And as you said, part of that is the niche market piece. That was something I learned in the last few years about like, why, the way that Netflix kind of changed the whole economy of the producing of media, which is, if you want something to go on Netflix, it needs 10,000 loyal watchers. 

It doesn’t need, you know, a couple of million. Um, you can build a catalog. And I think what you said is like, what you said earlier, this is, this is great for niche content. What we’re talking about here are not necessarily huge mass market, but kind of loyal following of, I don’t know, 15,000 to a hundred thousand followers who are catering to a particular community.

What other aspects would you describe that characterize the difference between what these kinds of frum or kosher influences are doing that might be different from kind of mass market ways in which Jewish food is moving into the mainstream kind of food market. 

Shayna: So, first of all, wherever they are America, Israel, etc. We talk about food or like combustibles, to use a fancy word, there’s a lot of buying power. You know, Orthodox families are bigger, they buy more groceries, they make more meals, et cetera. So already for advertisers, they’re, you know, they’re spending a lot of money.

There are firms, you know, advertising firms in Israel and probably in America also. That are set up for secular companies to come to them and tell them how to market to the Haredi community. Because there’s a lot of money in that. Haaretz actually had a great piece a couple of weeks ago about how the economics of ultra-Orthodox grocery stores, which are often cheaper than mainstream grocery stores in Israel, how that all works out. So a lot of fascinating things happening there. 

Secondly there’s a rising middle class, upper-middle class, whatever you want to call it in the Ultra Orthodox, modern-Orthodox, well, that already happened, in their community and they are not satisfied with the same kind of food that let’s say they grew up on per se.

Whether it’s wanting again, as I said, quote unquote healthier versions of classics, or even more so, a widespread variety of kosher products that just weren’t accessible before. So they want to have, you know, insert food trend here, Korean street food, but they want a kosher version. Right? Um, there’s also of course, a huge amount of baalei teshuva, of people who have become observant and they miss their fancy food eating ways of the past.

And, you know, some of the most interesting things that have happened in the sort of kosher food market come from baalei teshuva, you know because they want to bring back the sort of quality they had before, and they’re not willing to settle. And of course, all of this is happening among a sort of larger foodie movement in America that’s had many, you know, trends and whatnot that filter down.

You know, you might not be able to go to a fancy non-kosher Korean restaurant. But you can look at their Instagram and you can watch what they want to do. Um, I’m just manifesting a Korean barbecue restaurant in America that I can go to sometime soon. 

Yehuda: Yeah. Yeah. Jamie Geller is a good example by the way, who self describes as a a baal teshuva. She did grow up going to a Jewish day school, but became Orthodox, now lives in Beit Shemesh, speaks to both an Israeli expat identity as well as an American Jewish frum identity.

So th it’s it’s manifesting that type of thing. So you named obviously the, the economic changes in these communities and the buying power. By the way, just as a, a side news item, also last week, you know, there’s efforts now in Israel, because Israel has the highest per capita use of disposables, uh, in the world, largely because of the Haredi community.

There have been efforts now to start taxing the disposables. And the Hardeim are now using all of their political clout to fight against that because it impedes your lifestyle. If you have to feed 18 people, you know, who wants to do dishes? So there’s consumption, there’s the market. And I think there’s also the construction of an aesthetic here, right?

It’s it’s not just we want to eat the way that other people eat. We want to transform what kosher food looks like. There’s also there’s a kind of familiar look that appears in a lot of these videos, or in a lot of these influencers. There’s a set of life choices, a well-set table. Uh, women look a particular way. Men look a particular way, Right.

Women oftentimes have sheitils, wigs and men oftentimes have beards. These are aesthetic choices that are not merely reflective of a community but are about the construction of a particular image of the frum life that’s taking place in public.

So what do you think is motivating that? Like why, what goes on in the building out of a story of frum life as it’s supposed to look when it is kind of curated for a general public, because not, not all the watchers of this are going to be themselves frum Jews.

By definition, you put it on Instagram, you put it on YouTube. You’re not only looking a certain way and creating something a certain way so that it is recognizable to your audiences. You’re also building an aesthetic to be viewed by the general public. 

Shayna: Right. So I would say like, with anything, you need to consider the sort of Jewish context and the larger context, right. I’ll start with the Jewish context, right? If you think of classic, you know, frum, you can call it apologetic, you could call it culture, right? There’s an idea that the domestic sphere is to some extent the feminine sphere. This is what women are in charge of. And this is where women can exercise power. Right? 

I remember when I becoming more observant, right? The sort of classic line like Judaism is not a synagogue-centered religion, it’s a home-centered religion, with the undertone being right, therefore you don’t have to worry too much about not doing much in synagogue. 

So if you’re told that this is your domain, right. Which is an idea that obviously has larger cultural ramifications, Jews didn’t invent this idea. Then you want to, you know, you want to exercise all the power you have and with, again, media pressure to have your house as nice as possible, to look as nice, that combines with very traditional ideas of what we might call hidor mitzvah right, of making the mitzvah pleasant, of spending money on them. And you get, to some extent, a sort of perfect storm of performability and it becomes aspirational, right?

If you think of sort of stereotypical Orthodox mom who is working full time, has multiple kids, and needs to put together a Shabbat meal where their husband is also probably working full-time or learning full-time. This idea of a perfectly set Shabbat table with, you know, beautiful food and sometimes beautiful children showing up. It becomes both something to aspire to, but also something to sort of love-hate at the same time.

Yehuda: I was watching and, you know, doing a lot of deep cut analysis of a lot of these videos. And I was paying attention for the gender dynamics that you’re describing. So on one hand, many of the videos that we’re describing in terms of the, of the effectively kosher mommy bloggers are women. And there’s a, I think a prevailing assumption that they’re not, this is what they’re doing professionally, they’re not working. 

On the other hand, you do get periodic appearances by men, either in support roles or periodically in profoundly deferred roles. So there’s this YouTube video of Jamie Geller and her cholent recipe. And by the way as context, this is one of the moments where Jamie Geller made it, because her cholent recipe gets published by the New York Times.

But in the YouTube video, she’s standing on the side and her husband is making the cholent and she says, this has always been my husband’s recipe. I only make it when he’s not here. And, and like, if you know, when, in Fleishig’s magazine, which is another one of the kind of objects that we’re talking about here, a glossy magazine that looks basically like Bon Appetit, the meat people are Men. Naf Hanau from Grow and Behold is kind of like the, the meat authority. So women are cooking and men are associated with certain aspects of the food culture in very clear ways. Is that, is that correlate to how you would see the kind of gender dynamics of this market playing out?

Shayna: Yes. Although I will say Fleishig’s, I actually think is an exception in a lot of ways. First of all, they are one of the very few print magazines that print pictures of women. They take women chefs seriously. And I say, you know, gender in the larger food world is obviously a huge issue and the kosher food world is no exception.

And while there’s definitely room to improve, I would actually think, I would say Fleishig’s magazine is probably one of the best examples out there of gender parody and Orthodox Jewish writing in general, not just food writing. I was gifted a subscription. Thanks friend, you now who you are. 

Yehuda: Yeah, me too. 

Shayna: But I’ve really enjoyed it. And I’ve actually really enjoyed the attention, I think, to gender and women as chefs and not just as cooks. Um, but yes, there is an idea, and again, Judaism is not alone in this and sort of thinking that meat is manly, that, you know, men make cholent, but at the same time the woman can also be a sort of conduit to new things, to unknown things.

I am, I just have to comment. I am utterly fascinated by how Jamie Geller talks about knafeh. Kanfeh’s Palestinian. Right. It is a real Palestinian dish. It is different than some other, let’s say, Mizrachi Jewish desserts that have Jewish associations but also were eaten in the larger middle east. I dunno. You can think of like move mufleta, right. We just had memunah. Or maamoul, like say filled date cookies. 

Yehuda: Or baklava. 

Shayna: Or baklava, right. Knafeh is different. Knafeh is Palestinian in origin, and yes, I now, it’s become part of the Jewish Israeli food market as well. But Jamie is literally kosher-izing the kanfeh, right, for her viewers.

She’s saying, this dish that you probably haven’t heard of, because unless you were paying attention to Palestinian food, which is not only, you know, scary because it’s Palestinian in many people’s eyes, but also not kosher. She was like, I’m telling you how to eat it. Note that she says middle Eastern. She doesn’t say Mizrachi. Cause she knows she can’t say Mizrachi, but she also doesn’t say Arab or Palestinian. I, there’s a lot going on there. 

But I think the women, in the same way that Orthodox Jewish women often have more freedom for education and for their career. I think they can also often have more freedom in the food they kind of introduce to their viewers because they’re not necessarily expected to be like big steak man eating people.

Yehuda: Yeah. It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where they try to open a shawarma truck and they’re like, tahini. That sounds so exotic. And they said, just call it flavor sauce. So there’s a little, a little bit of that going on here too. 

Okay. So, um. We talked a little bit about, about money, about gender. There are a couple of items just in the last couple of weeks in terms of the news cycle that influenced this story and suggest that it’s more than just niche content that appears in corners of the internet. It’s actually about the ways in which social media is really transforming religious life for Jews and for the Jewish community.

The big news story, which probably will deserve its own show. And we may wind up covering it, is this story by Taylor Lorenz at the Washington Post about trying to uncover who’s the identity behind this account social media account called Libs of Tik Tok, which is basically exposing all sorts of liberal and progressive, mostly by kind of curating their own feeds, right, uh, largely LGBT teachers and others. Kind of showcasing them to the world ostensibly as a way of profiling how these ideas are permeating the school system and our general culture, but oftentimes with really dangerous consequences for the individuals who get profiled on this incredibly conservative media site.

And when she exposes the creator behind it, it turns out it is a Chabad Orthodox woman. And then the story takes like a very weird turn, as people begin to argue that naming her as being an Orthodox woman is in and of itself anti-Semitic. 

So let’s, let’s unpack the story a little bit because there was, parts of it, I was like, oh, it’s totally not surprising. Given how fluent the Orthodox world is becoming with social media and influencing, and given the trends that we’re seeing around the political identity of Orthodox Jews, in some ways, it’s not that surprising, that this would be an Orthodox Jewish woman behind this account. 

On the other hand, holy cow, this tells a story of like, a certain type of profound assimilation in terms of American orthodoxy. So maybe you can help us unpack that story. Cause it’s hard for, these things are connected to each other. The use of social media are connected to, whether it’s about food or whether it’s about politics.

Shayna: A hundred percent, I’ll start off by saying. Even if someone is like mainly a lifestyle influencer on social media, their content will inevitably dip to current events. Right? Sometimes it will be like, well, I’m not going to talk about the events that Israel, or I’m not posting dinner for the day because today is too sad of a day.

But these influencers, right? Not just Jewish ones, but in general. People turn to them as experts. People get mad when they don’t make statements. Right. Um, we saw this, of course, larger examples with, you know, George Floyd and, you know, you’ve got these sort of ridiculous things where people are like, you know, where GAP says they support black lives matter or whatever.

But their authority gets expanded. And you see this a lot of course, with COVID, with whenever conflicts in Israel heat up. So people turn to them and they will often take questions or post their opinions. Or sometimes, you know, partner with organizations. Jamie Geller is partnering with a shemita organization. There’s a lot to talk about there. 

So their sphere sort of gets extended. Sometimes it feels almost like against their will. So, you know, I remember one of my favorite influencers. I had a real revelatory moment, right? When vaccines came out, she started talking about, right, new world older and sort of QAnon stuff. 

And I had to be like, okay, I just liked this woman cause she makes Shabbos dinners, but also like she’s spouting QAnon, what do I do with this? Um, you know, there’s an entire ecosystem of conservative media. And as you know, many, many people, including Taylor Lorenz have talked about, there’s a deep ecosystem of sort of things more to the extremes. And the ultra-Orthodox world or the Orthodox world sort of in general is very drawn to this for a variety of reasons.

I think especially the sort of more insular you go in terms of the community. There’s not the same exposure, let’s say, to rigorous secular education to mainstream discourses and or the world that’s seemingly aligned with our values when they’re under attack and that welcomes them. 

And, I’m not the first person to point this out, um, it reminds me of the article that Avital Chizhik-Goldschmid wrote yesterday for the Atlantic, talking about the popularity of the surrendered wife, right? A very popular Christian evangelical guide for women to submit to their husbands, how that is becoming popular in the Orthodox world as well. So, right, these boundaries are really porous and they have deep, deep influence.

So I’m, I can’t say I’m thrilled. Right? I’m, uh, when I saw that this woman’s name was Chaya, I was like, oh God, oh God, oh God. Right. The irony of her name being Chaya Mushka is like another discussion for another day. But I think if you’ve been paying attention, it is not surprising. 

I’ll say one more thing and that is, in Israel, there’s going to be a show, I cannot wait, called Bnot Brock about Haredi women, influencers living in Bnei Brock. Hence the title Bnot Brock, right? It’s a gender play. And I wrote some things on them. And when I was writing my conclusion about this article, Chaim Walder, the Haredi children’s author, who was accused of horrific sexual abuse, committed suicide. And that’s a whole nother topic. I know that you guys have discussed it on the podcast, but for me, um, one of the most interesting things is that these women, who I all started following on Instagram, in between their outfits of the day and their sheitels and their interior design, were posting, we believe the victims, come to us, we need to create space for it. 

So it’s really easy to discount this sort of thing. You’ll feel, oh, you know, they just post clothes or shoes or food or whatever, and many people do. But I think it was the events of the past couple of weeks have shown us, if you’re not paying attention, you are deeply, deeply missing the story.

Yehuda: We, we talked about the Walder case with the Nechumi Yaffe on the show back in, in January of 22. And I, I would refer listeners back to that. So I guess where I pushed back a little bit, Shayna, on your read is, I don’t know that this is about education, maybe it’s just complimentary to what you’re saying. I think there are two other factors at work here. 

One is the whole media privileges the idiosyncratic opinion. The one that other people think is wrong, something that pushes past conventional wisdom. And that can be true, whether it’s like, here, I’ve figured out a way to make a new grain salad. I watched one of those videos this week on my, in, my Instagram food blogger obsession. 

Or watching the woman behind the Peas, Love, and Carrots blog and cookbook talk about like, here’s how you should cook for Pesach. You need to create noise and distance from everything else that’s out there in the public square.

You can’t simply replicate what’s there. And I think that that winds up creating a correlation between how I want to present my food as unique versus how I wanna present my politics. Everyone else was talking about vaccines as being good. I’m going to tell you why they’re not. Um, I think that’s just baked into the media, right, in some way?

Shayna: Totally. I mean, you see it with the college anti-Semitism anti-Israel outrage cycle. This is not to deny that there are very real things happening that are very serious problems on college campuses. But you know, and I can speak from personal experience from things I’ve seen at Brandeis, there is an entire ecosystem devoted to whipping up conflict and taking things and putting them out of context and sort of creating an outrage machine, in which someone tweets about it, then it gets picked up by media, you know, then all of a sudden someone bothers to like fact check it. It turns out it wasn’t necessarily even a story at all. Right. 

We saw this a couple of days ago with um, Mike Evans, right? A very prominent Christian Evangelical who has really inserted himself into his, uh, Israeli politics. Really sort of gone beyond a sort of pro-Bibi stand and talked about how Bennett is, you know, terrible and whatnot, saying that he was going to lead a March of the living bus or something like that. Some sort of delegation. It turns out it just wasn’t true. Right. He tweeted something about it. You know, people picked it up.

It turns out he was participating and that was it. But he didn’t have this leadership role that he perscribed. So, yeah, that’s definitely a part of the, sort of what I would call outrage machine and also the tendency to sort of dump or pile on, on people. And you know, there’s been a lot written about this, um, you know, you don’t want to be Twitter’s main character for the day or, you know, viral videos that then eventually ended up being much more complicated. 

So Libs of TikTok speaks to that ecosystem. Right. And Taylor did an amazing job showing how videos that she picked up on would often be, you know shared right away by Fox news or other, sort of, right-wing sites.

Yehuda: I, I think there’s one other variable that I want to, I want to throw in here, which is, you know, we were talking about it in a, in a seminar here at Hartman yesterday around the kind of a story of American exceptionalism that’s working extremely well for centrists and even ultra orthodoxy, which may help to explain the relationship to Trumpism in this country, in which America, a certain image of America, a certain portrait of America, is viewed as the place that has made possible American Orthodox Jewish flourishing. 

And that flourishing is largely economic. But it also is like, here’s the place where we get to live out our life and our values, which are, in this portrayal, basically conservative values. And therefore, those who want to advance a different conversation in this country around gender, who want to call into question American origins, vis-a-vis race, are threatening the kind of livelihood and story of a place where we get to basically live out our frum lives in public. 

And I, that feels to me like the cleanest way of understanding what’s going on, both on the political side of this kind of social media of, we want to participate in this kind of weird nostalgia for an America, which lo haya v’lo nivra, of course never really existed. But also in which there was more structural antisemitism. People kind of forget about that. We want that America to be able to live out our frum lives, which include a certain type of consumption and a certain type of piety, which as you indicated before, lines up with a kind of version of evangelical religion as well.

That feels to me like it’s a big part of this story, both again on the food blogging and on the politics blogging.  

Shayna: Yeah, I totally agree. I know you’ve had David Myers and Nomi Stolzenberg on the podcast, right. They do a really good job in their book on Kiryas Joel, of, you know, when the school case, this case about the special education district, starts picking up steam, right? Pretty quickly Evangelical Christians in the eighties and nineties realized that this is good for them as well, and start making calls and making connections right.

They definitely reinforce each other and play each other out. And there are very deep and real connections. And at the same time, right, there’s sort of different dances that have to play on. Right. Especially the issue of anti-Semitism and sort of relationships with Israel, which have really radically transformed the sort of Christian and Evangelical community.

I know, I haven’t listened to it, but I know last week’s podcast is about that. So, yeah, it’s about that. It’s aboout a lifestyle. It’s about values. It’s about sort of lost nostalgia, coupled with consumption and product sponsorship and all these sort of things. You know, if we think about what’s happened in Miami, right? Or south Florida in general, the unbelievable boom of the Orthodox Jewish community in south Florida, I think is a manifestation of a lot of all those things.

Yehuda: Great. So let’s shift to Florida for a second. There was a, also a little video that went viral this week of the Pesach program. I want to talk about Pesach programs. The Pesach program that took place at the Trump Doral resort, in which the featured speakers at the event were Ron DeSantis and Ben Shapiro, and the former president showed up and was just greeted with obviously a hero’s welcome.

And this is a self-selecting crowd, right? It’s not that he just showed up at, you know, the Pesach program in Cabo, is, this is the one that came to his hotel. Um, you’re right, I think to say, Florida has become the center of this, the combination of Florida politics, the tax culture in Florida, a whole bunch of other things, climate skepticism, makes Florida a really appealing place to move. Though some of us would prefer not to go to a place that may be underwater. All of that is kind of leading to this boom in Florida, but let’s talk a little bit about the Pesach program itself, because that to me is also one of the central objects of food and consumption culture.

Shayna, where did this come from? I don’t feel like when I was growing up, I knew there were a handful of families that would go to a Pesach program, but there were a few of them. Pesach programs are now just an unbelievably massive industry in the Orthodox community. 

I don’t really get how it works because I can’t be that everybody can actually afford them. They are in some cases, wildly ornate and expensive. I do recommend our viewers, go look at the videos. Uh, you sent me one from, I think, Diamond Club Pesach Program. It’s just an, an incredible display of both religiosity and food and consumption in exotic destinations. I don’t know. It’s just maybe you could help us understand where it came from.

And I will say both you and I probably feel this mixed sense of like, oh my God, this is wild. And hey, I’d love to get a gig, you know, speaking on said Pesach program, 

Shayna: Right I was just about to say I’ve just returned from my first Pesach program, where I was a scholar in residence. Although I will say Ramah Darom, while definitely not cheap, is a very different vibe than I’d say some of these videos. 

Yehuda: Totally different and not Orthodox. And that’s part of the story. 

Shayna: And also not Orthodox, which is also a really interesting thing. 

Yehuda: And one of the things that makes this story so interesting is that like a lot of non Orthodox Jews keep Passover, but there’s no market for a non-Orthodox all-inclusive Pesach program. 

Shayna: Right. And even Ramah Darom had to change his Hashkacha from a conservative Hashkacha that the camp generally has, to an Orthodox Hashkacha to make it more viable. But history wise. So like Jews have been vacationing for a long time in Europe and America. In Europe we had kosher hotels over a hundred years ago. 

The Agudath actually had conventions in places like Marienbad, the Agudas Yisrael, which is a spa town in Germany. And there are lots of pictures of Rebbeim and other people like that going there and vacationing there. If you think about it, it was like a great sort of two for one, you could get your spa vacation and visit the Rebbe at the same. Sounds great. I would still do that today. 

If we think about America, right? The most famous example is of course the Catskills, right? 

Yehuda: Grossinger’s. Yeah.

Shayna: And that has a long history. There was also, I would say, in addition to what we may call a strictly vacationing, sort of relief societies or camps set up as respite, right? Those of you probably know, or many of you know, that Isabella Freedman used to be the Jewish working girls release society, which is my band name for the next Jewish studies conference. So you have these history, you know, Denver has a history with tuberculosis and also Jewish, especially Jewish relief societies there.

So you have these histories and then, you know, I am dreaming of writing an article about Pesach programs. I have not done intense archival research yet, but my guess is it picks up in the eighties and nineties as sort of just from a couple of small programs with the real explosion of income. And even though the Pesach program I went on was not especially fancy or anything like that.

Having been on it, I feel like I gained a lot of perspective that allowed me to understand the industry. And one is the creation of a world, even if it’s only for eight or nine days, that’s not usually accessible to you. If you keep kosher, forget Passover, but if you keep kosher in any sort of significant way, even just like eating vegetarian out, you can’t see my quotes.

It restricts you, it restricts you a lot. Right. In what you eat and how you travel, you need to plan. Right. And so here’s something where you go and not only do you don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to do anything during what is the most labor-intensive holiday of the entire Jewish year. And it’s really fun and it’s a place you would never get to go otherwise or would never think of going otherwise.

Right. So it just become, and April for a lot of reasons, it’s not necessarily high traveling time for most places. So it’s a sort of off market, it’s not winter for, you know, it’s not summer. So it’s this opportunity for Observant Jews, Orthodox Jews to sort of quote unquote, feel normal and eat like everyone else or do like everyone else.

It really feels like a cruise ship. I know there’s variation in programs. Um, European programs tend to be less expensive. American programs tend to be more expensive, that has to do with entertainment and also other costs. But I actually think it’s a sense of normalcy and a sense of community that you can’t get any other time of the year. And of course, like, it’s amazing not to cook for Pesach. Right. Like, it’s great. Like I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t want to do that. I do wonder about the costs on both ends. 

One is that if you go into the Facebook groups, especially now that Pesach just ended, you’ll see a lot of reports of programs that went bad. Either because you know, all sorts of things, taking on these things and organizing them, it’s a huge logistical nightmare. I’m glad I’m not doing it, right. And of course, some people are better than others. But I do worry about the money. Not worry, or wonder about the money, who is paying for these, but I actually think there’s a lot of wealth and a lot of disposable income.

And I will say, additionally, there’s a lot of like group discounts and things. You know, if you bring five people, if you bring that sort of thing, it’s actually very hard to find prices on a lot of these programs, which is another interesting thing in and of itself. 

Yehuda: Yeah, our family did a few has done Pesach programs a few times once as invited speakers. That was great, obviously. One time we were part of that, what is now known as like the Pesach program Fyre Festival incident that took place in Orlando a couple of years ago where the guy who organized it, and, it was a weird program. You like rent your own house within a compound, and then they deliver food daily to your house. But like the guy who was in charge like absconded after day two, cause he kind of ran out of money. So it was like uh, anyway, we had that story, it was covered in JTA. 

I, I do recommend that folks who are not in this world, look into this world. It is a fascinating window into the performance of Jewish identity. I, I think a lot of people who attend such programs do so for all the reasons you said, like, I don’t have to cook Pesach. I get all my family together, children and grandchildren, in one place. It really feels like a holiday of liberation. And it is kind of like a landed cruise experience. There’s of course, Pesach cruises as well. And, and we definitely need you to write that book, Shayna, on this, I think it’s just an incredible story about uh, a certain form of American Jewish identity. 

There’s a lot more pieces here. Last thing I want to talk to you about, the food itself. You alluded to this before about the kind of creation of a new kosher, uh, omnivore, right that this business of food and the internet and social media is making possible for people to eat all whole bunch of things that that in theory, Hamish food right, frum food would have left behind, right.

To eat Jewish a century ago with a certain population would have meant not only keeping kosher, but a certain types of food. And now you see that basically goes by the wayside. At any upscale Pesach program is a, probably a 24-hour sushi bar. There is every imaginable kind of cut of meat is being surfaced. I’m fascinated by this story as well, because one of the things that it has the potential risk of doing is for a community that is deeply passionate about tradition and nostalgia, is disconnecting people from the foodstuffs that comprised that nostalgia for a long time. So I’d love for you to unpack that a little bit, like does the inevitability of the sushi bar at a smorgasbord kind of get in the way of how food once functioned as part of the of nostalgic Orthodox Jewish identity? 

Shayna: Right. So a couple of things. One is that, you know, it w it wasn’t necessarily nostalgic to the people in Ea, Eastern Europe at the time. 

Yehuda: Yes, it was just food. 

Shayna: It was just food. Right, Rachel Gross. Right? One of my best friends, also podcast guest has written an amazing book about how nostalgia functions and how, and of course other scholars have talked about, of course, how food has changed, right. Not just Jewish food, but we know these stories from Chinese food. Right. How things change when they cross borders, right? There are American Chinese restaurants in China, right. For people who are entertained by these sort of things. So that’s one thing. 

Um, so you do see some of this pushback and you do see some of these discussions. Um Raizy Fried, who is a particular favorite of mine has a cookbook Lekoved Shabbos. And she talks about while she likes trendy restaurants. Like she likes fun food just as everyone else. She felt what was missing is that, these sort of classics, for her, what are Hamish classics, these were like Hasidish Ashkenazi foods. There wasn’t a good book that did a good job talking about how to make a beautiful Shabbos.

She is fascinating. She calls herself Hungarian and chilled, a sort of, you know, if you know anything, stereotypes about Hungarian um, Jews, they, you know, this idea that the sort of overly fancy. She says she wants to sort of keep that idea of a beautiful, classy Shabbos table and sort of make it more attainable.

Um, so you do see that and you also see, like you saw in the non-kosher world, a sort of reinvisioning of classics, right? The popularity of Yapchik, right, which fascinatingly enough, does not have an entry in Gil Mark’s encyclopedia of Jewish food, which at this point is probably about 15 years old, he unfortunately passed away way too young, a really phenomenal food scholar.

The fact that it doesn’t have an entry, even under cholent, it’s not mentioned, um, Yapchik makes me thinks that it’s a very, very new invention, even though it’s passed off as something very old. So you see this re-imagining of what sort of understood as old world foods. You know, as a historian, I’m not too worried about disconnect.

People chang. You know. And what they relate to change. Like I’ve even had like nineties Shabbat meals with friends where we make things like deli roll and cranberry crunch, that if you were a part of a certain circle right, in, in New York or in the Northeast at a certain time, you made certain kinds of food.

I’m not too worried about like Jewish identity being in any sort of one food identity, but it’s interesting to see. And of course, another thing we’ve sort of alluded to this is just the huge mixing in the United States, Israel too, although in different ways between sort of traditional Ashkenazi food and other kinds of food as well. You know the prevalence of dips, right, is probabaly 

Yehuda: Oh, yes, I’m so happy you brought up dips. 

Shayna: There’s so much to tal about dips. Oh my gosh. I remember the first time I, there was like two Mizrachi families in Jacksonville. One was a Moroccan Jewish family. I was friendly, they had daughter my age, I went for Shabbos dinner, I remember the first time I went and the first course was now what I know is like a Mezze course, but in Jacksonville, Florida in the nineties, no one was serving Mezze other than this one family.

And I remember thinking like, oh, it’s like kind of weird that they don’t have like fish or chicken or potatoes. Like what I knew of Shabbat dinner. But I wasn’t going to say anything. So I just like ate some Challah and some like carrot salad, or the cabbage salad. And then of course I was proven very wrong, that there was a lot of food afterwards.

Now, every, you know, meal, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, whatever has this prevalence of dips, which is this sort of carryover Mezze culture. So there’s really interesting mixing and a lot more openness to, you know, sort of Jewish food, which is really interesting, and even blends back over into Sephardi and Mizrachi food as well. 

In Fleishig magazine, I was reading an article about, with one of the Syrian caterers, Syrian Jewish caterers in Deal. And she was talking about making a fun dish for one, some benefit dinner and what they did. You know, it’s more of a joke out of someone she worked with that was Ashkenazi, is that she made kibbeh instead of with chopped meat, which is the standard filling for kibbeh, which are these sort of like wheat pastries, she made one filled with chopped liver as like the ultimate crossover event. Which one sounds delicious. Please make that for me. And two, I think signifies in just like the multiple directions, right, these things are going, and that’s really interesting to see. 

Yehuda: Yeah, for those who, who want to just understand this more, you can go to any kosher supermarket now, and there’s going to be a whole wall of dips. And it’s even a word that now is like an American Jewish word, um, of dips. And these migrations. There’s so many pieces here. 

You know, one of the pieces that I tried to do a little history reading about is, you know, one of the originating figures in this whole story is a woman named Susie Fishbein who has sold over half a million actual physical cookbooks as part of her Kosher by Design series.

The first one, however that came out was called the Kosher Palette. I remember when it came out, it was like, oh wow, you could make fancy kosher food. It was actually a fundraiser for the Kushner Academy in New Jersey, that’s where it got created. So the, all of that ties into who American Jews are politically and food and influence also all seem to be connected together.

Last question, lightning round. Who should people follow? Give us a couple of names of people. We, you alluded to them before, but who are some of the other folks that people who are interested in reading or watching, actually, more on this should keep an eye out for?

Shayna: Um. First of all, I have to just say that I am in a bean club, the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, which is another discussion. There’s a special Facebook group and Susie Fishbein posts in the Facebook group about her bean recipes. And whenever I see her posts, it is like legit seeing a celebrity in real life. So that’s amazing. Um. It’s very exciting when she posts about her beans. 

In terms of people to follow. Raizy Fried who I mentioned, who’s this really interesting Hasidic woman for a mix of sort of tablescapes and shabbos meals and lifestyle. She’s a really fascinating person. There is Peas, Love, Carrots, who is an American woman you mentioned, living in Israel, who brings a Mizrachi perspective to all of this. She’s another personal favorite of mine. And actually, even though you mentioned her already, I think Adeena Sussman does a really interesting job blending a lot of different cuisines together, whether it’s Israeli, Jewish, Mizrachi, whatever. And it’s also just sort of a delightful personality. Who does legitimately hang out in the Tel Aviv shuk a lot. I actually ran into her there when I was there over the summer. 

Yehuda: Celebrity sighting. Well, hanks so much. Dr. Shayna Weiss for being on our show again, and thanks to all of you for listening. 

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and M Louis Gordon, with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so called.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. So if you have a topic you want to hear about, or if you have comments about this episode, please write to us at [email protected]

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